Ocala, FL (February 18, 2017): The sun beamed down on a beautiful day for team sport at HITS Ocala as Team Ireland swooped in to take home the winning title in the FEI Nations Cup™ Jumping Ocala competition on Friday, February 17 at HITS Post Time Farm. Ireland took home the Nations Cup title in 2015 and would do so again today, leaving the Sunshine State with another FEI Nations Cup™ title under their belts and their share of the $100,000 purse.
One could say that the luck of the Irish was on the team’s side, but as Chef d’Equipe, Michael Blake, would go on to say in the post-victory press conference, “This win means a lot to me. All of these men at the table are incredible riders; I selected this team early on because we need strategy first and organization in our plan, and then we can do our best.”
The Irish showed up to the Horse Capital of the World with a talented squad: Kevin Babington, Cian O’Connor, Shane Sweetnam, Richie Moloney. The seven teams included USA, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, Canada and of course Ireland. The inaugural Parade of Nations put on by the City of Ocala and Marion County’s leaders and community, an event called Jump Downtown held in the Square Wednesday evening, welcomed the teams to Nations Cup Week with a bang to set the tone with a slew of excitement for the event.
A packed grandstand, sold out VIP, and live webcast via FEI TV looked on as the seven nations took their turns over a two-round competition course of 15 efforts set at 1.50m, designed by Marina Azevedo of Sao Paulo, Brazil. First of the 27 to show was Shane Sweetnam (IRL) riding Spy Coast Farm, LLC’s Chaqui Z. They were quick to set the tone for the afternoon with a clean round right out of the gate.
They would complete the first round holding the lead, where it would remain in a wire-to-wire challenge against Team USA.
“We came in with the intention to win,” said Sweetnam. “The Course Designer (Marina Azevedo of Sao Paulo, Brazil) did a fantastic job. It was nice but tough in places it should be to jump at this level. We were quite confident coming back in but knew that we still had to put in our best effort to win.”
“This win means a lot to us,” continued teammate Richie Moloney. “It feels great to be sitting at this table with the lads.We had a great time in Ocala and I’m very happy with the result today.”
The field of challengers began the course strong, picking up several clean rounds to start the first round, including Emanuel Andrade (VEN), Tiffany Foster (CAN), Arturo Parada Vallejo (MEX) and McLain Ward (USA)— all garnering clear rounds within the first six in the order. The course began to show the challenges as the class went on.
“I’m happy with today as it was my first Nations Cup,” said Azevedo. “Thank you to Tom for this opportunity to build for this group of riders. It is challenging to build a course for this event with several high-level riders and horses, and at the same time with riders and horses at a developing level. We have to think a little bit about where we can put in the height, and the spreads, and put in different distances. I’m glad to be here and I hope the riders enjoyed my course.”
The energy was high as the first seven competitors took a second turn on Azevedo’s course. It appeared that many of the horses lost respect for the water jump, clearing all the fences but touching the tape in the water resulting in four faults.
Kevin Babington (IRL) elaborated on his effort to clear the water jump and a plan to tackle the triple combination, which caused many a rail in the second round for other team hopefuls.
“I had the rail at the ‘C’ element of the combination. I got there a bit rushed in the first round,” said Babington. “In the second round, I wanted to get there slowing down and I thought it had come to plan but I ended up having ‘A’ down. Everything else worked to plan but when we returned, five horses had landed in the water, so I rode the water a little bit harder coming back in.”
Team USA faced eight faults coming back into the second round. Ward jumped another clear round on the fiery Rothchild going fourth in the second-round order, followed by four-fault scores from teammates Lillie Keenan and Lauren Hough, respectively. The team sat at 16 total points, but still had Beezie Madden’s turn to bank on.
Richie Moloney was the penultimate rider for the Irish Team, going seventh in the order and scoring 12 faults. With the highest score dropped, Ireland sat at 12 total points. To seal the deal and walk away with the top spot on the podium, anchor rider Cian O’Connor would need to fly through the course with all of the rails up.
As fate would have it, the two final riders on course were Madden and O’Connor. The atmosphere was electric as Madden clocked in clear aboard Breitling LS, owned by Abigail Wexner, giving Team USA a final score of 16.
The crowd was on the edge of their seats as O’Connor entered piloting Seringat, owned by Ronnoco Jump, Ltd. They cruised through the course, taking caution to efficiently capture a clear round and seal the victory for their home country with a total of 12 faults. They touched down with no penalties to speak of and the crowd went wild as Irish flags of green, white and orange were waved in the air. As Seringat’s feet touched the earth, O'Connor would say that the feeling was incredible, and he was “counting the dollars.”
“You learn to deal with that extra pressure you have as the anchor rider, and I feel that I perform better under the pressure,” said O’Connor. “When you see people work together to come and take this winning result, there’s nobody here that wouldn’t say that the biggest buzz there is is to win a team event. The Nations Cups are great, they prepare riders to deliver results on the day when it counts.”
HITS President and CEO, Tom Struzzieri, added to the splendor of Ireland’s win, joking that it was his second favorite result [as opposed to Team USA taking home the win].
“What great sport today. It was terrific for show jumping and great for HITS,” said Struzzieri. “We’re looking ahead to the Great American Million which is in the end of the month in March. It’s the grand finale to this circuit and we’re hoping to have some of these wonderful gentleman back with us; we’re always glad to have them and what they bring to the horse show.”
International competition continues in the Ocala Horse Properties Stadium on Sunday for the $100,000 City of Ocala Grand Prix (FEI). Throughout the HITS Ocala CSIO4*, HITS will give nearly $300,000 in prize money in FEI Jumper classes. Sunday’s $100,000 Grand Prix will be available by live webcast through HITS TV and FEI TV.